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A Peek Behind the Effort to Help You Unlearn Misconceptions

In the late 1970s I began teaching college astronomy. There I was, in front of 250 students for the first time, and I had never received a minute's instruction on how to teach. Back in those days, young college faculty were expected to have picked up the basics of teaching from the instructors they had had over the years. Of course, their professors had also learned to teach without any formal instruction in education, so it was mostly a case of the blind leading the blind.

As I can testify, the intuitive feeling a new and untrained teacher has about presenting material is that capable students should be able to comprehend clear explanations and make that knowledge part of their understanding about nature. This has been codified in the concept of the student as a blank slate (tabula rasa) ready to be filled with information. We now recognize how naive this idea is. How many courses in school or college did you take in which you went in on the first day with no beliefs at all about the subject?

It wasn't until late in the twentieth century that most educators "discovered" that they have to help students unlearn incorrect prior beliefs before they can retain and use correct information. Teacher training courses often emphasize this, but it really sinks home only after you teach a conventional class and see how many incorrect ideas students have at the beginning and which ones they retain afterward. For those of us who discovered the need to correct misconceptions on our own, the realization that students quickly forget much of what you normally teach came as quite a shock.

The reality is that most students come to most classes at all levels of their schooling with preconceived ideas about each subject. This happens because we all develop beliefs about most things we encounter, even if we have never had any formal education on them. The same argument applies to subjects we never learn about in school. I never took a course in economics, but I have a variety of ideas about it, and I'll bet you another nickel that many of them are wrong. Likewise, even if you have never taken an astronomy course, if you pick up a popular-level astronomy book, you will probably find that you already have beliefs about the material presented.

There is no magic pill to help people unlearn deep-seated incorrect beliefs (that is, misconceptions). If there were, we science teachers would be dispensing it like candy and many fewer erroneous ideas would be floating around. One thing that has grown clear to me in trying to help students replace misconceptions is that these beliefs must be addressed directly, intensively, and persistently if there is to be any hope of permanent change.

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